When business and joy collide: Dr Judith Slocombe shares what it means to do work with meaning

24 February 2016

Rebecca Cowan (left) with Dr Judith Slocombe

For a career built around caring for her two great loves—animals and children—Dr Judith Slocombe’s work life has been rich, varied, and showered with accolades. From early roles on farms in regional Victoria, she’s been a practicing veterinarian, a business owner and senior executive manager, and in 2001 she became the Australian Telstra Business Woman of the Year.

Now as CEO of The Alannah and Madeline Foundation—a charity that works to keep children safe from violence—Slocombe is one of Australia's most respected experts on bullying and is on a mission to keep children safe from violence.

Rebecca Cowan manages the marketing and communication functions for The Alannah and Madeline Foundation. Rebecca previously worked for Telstra and NAB before joining in 2011, and is passionate about the difference the Foundation's work makes in the lives of Australian children. Together, they discuss the importance of company values, recruitment, and a healthy working relationship.

Judith

Before joining The Alannah and Madeline Foundation, I was looking for a role that would deliver more meaning than just an income. And for me, the things that I care about most are animals and children. As I was already working in a non-executive role for some animal charities, it came down to perfect timing that the role of CEO for The Alannah and Madeline Foundation arrived when I was looking for something. It was a subject and an outcome that I was passionate about. The mission really gelled with me.

It’s a real joy working at The Alannah and Madeline Foundation. I enjoy coming to work every day, and I enjoy bouncing ideas around with Bec. It’s wonderful having someone you can really trust, because they’re highly talented and also because of their integrity. I think as a manager, the key skill you need to have is choosing really great people, and I think that makes great organisations. When hiring, I’m quite happy to choose people who are cleverer than me, know more than me and do different things than I do, because that’s the way we become a great organisation. And Bec is a real lynchpin in our organisation.

When hiring, I’m quite happy to choose people who are cleverer than me, know more than me and do different things than I do, because that’s the way we become a great organisation.

Bec started doing some consulting work for us. We were really lucky that we actually had the opportunity to see her in action: we just knew she was the right person for the role that we had.

When recruiting, we start by looking at what the role is, what the need is, and being very clear about that so we can recruit the right person. But when it all comes down to it, one of the key hurdles is: are they going to fit culturally with us? We always believe that you can train people for skills, but it’s really hard to train people to live values. Values are so innate.

I think [job seekers] need to be proactive. You don’t always wait for the job to be advertised. It’s always good to let them know that you’re there, just putting your resume in and giving them a phone call. Because quite often if we know someone is passionate about the place and they’ve actually contacted us, then when something does come up, we’ll consider it even if it is a bit tangential to their skills. And volunteers! We’re always looking for people to give us a hand. We’ve got a lot of people who started off as volunteers and then became indispensable.

In business, it’s important to take risks. No risk, no gain. And the higher the risk the higher the reward. But you have to know what risks to take—some are just not worth it. Financial risk is one thing, but you never risk your reputation and never take legal risks. I have an ethical standard and there’s a line that I will never cross. If it fits in with your strategy and the upside is really worthwhile, take the risk. As far as business strategy goes, with my former business and even with The Alannah and Madeline Foundation, we have a pipeline of products and we know that not all of them will be successful so we’ll have a go and be willing to fail, but if you’ve got enough products, and if you’re sensible about them, you’ll get a winner. And that way you’ll be able to be successful in the long run. You can’t do that without some risk.

The people who inspire me are not necessarily famous or well-known. Our founder Walter Mikac lost his whole family—Alannah was six and Madeline was three—and was inspired to help other children. He is a fundamental inspiration to me. Sometimes it’s just someone who’s doing it really hard and soldiers on, or just someone who gives so much of themselves, and sometimes it’s just the day-to-day people that I work with who just do that little bit more, and go that little step further. They inspire me.

…sometimes it’s just the day-to-day people that I work with who just do that little bit more, and go that little step further. They inspire me.

One of the fundamental things I have in my relationship with Bec—and hopefully with everyone here—is that we can have an open and honest discussion. If Bec disagrees with me on something, it doesn’t matter that I’m the CEO. The goal is together we want to do more to help children, and if there’s a better way of doing it, everyone needs to be open to that.

Rebecca

After finishing my qualification in business and marketing, I went into a graduate role at Telstra. After several years, I was managing the Telstra Business Women’s Awards and the Telstra Small Business Awards and that’s where I met Judith for the first time when she was named the Australian Telstra Business Woman of the Year.

Later, I started working for NAB, the major partner of The Alannah and Madeline Foundation. When I was working in corporate, I was always in the CSR (corporate social responsibility) side, and so I knew a lot about the Foundation and kept across the work they were doing. I looked up to Judith both on a professional and personal level, and she’s someone I’ve always wanted to work with. When the opportunity came up, I had to take it.

The Alannah and Madeline Foundation is an inspiring place to work. Knowing that we are making a difference in children’s lives motivates me to continue the important work that began almost 20 years ago. Sometimes it doesn’t feel like work at all. I am constantly reminded how generous people are whether its money they are donating or time they are providing. You can’t help but feel proud working for an organisation like this.

It’s an absolute joy to work with Judith. Because I have a lot of respect for Judith, I want her to be proud of the work we’re doing together, and I want us to achieve really great things. And we do. I think we bring out the best in each other. You just want to do the best you possibly can.

The Alannah and Madeline Foundation is a national charity protecting children from violence and its devastating impact. The Foundation was set up in memory of Alannah and Madeline Mikac, aged six and three, who were tragically killed with their mother and 32 others at Port Arthur, Tasmania on 28 April 1996. For more information on the Alannah and Madeline Foundation, visit the company website.

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